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Sand Through A Sieve

Men are restless, adventurous. Women are conservative – despite what current ideology says.

-Doris Lessing


“A3yigh thi xedmah agi.” (I’m sick of this work).

Thus spoke my father-in-law, turning to his wife with a shrug, his brows forming one straight line above his piercing dark eyes. His face was stern, even a little melancholy, in repose. It was a long-boned face, tapering to a rounded chin, with a prominent Kabyle nose, under which grew a neat black moustache à la Hitler. Beneath a high forehead, his deep-set eyes were half hidden by drooping eyelids, and his gaze was steady and slightly ironic.

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My mother-in-law, taken aback, stared at him without saying a word. She had learned that it was better not to ask too many questions or query her husband’s decisions. Firstly because Kabyle wives at that time had no say in such matters, and secondly, she was naturally deferent to her husband. Not for her the thousand little tricks used by others to bring subtle pressure to bear on their husbands.

Everything, from the way her husband held himself, to the way he spoke, to that look of unassailable confidence in his eye, said he could achieve anything to which he set his mind. What could she do but believe him? Like the others she fell in step behind him, and that was that. His self-assurance, bordering on arrogance, was to be inherited by his eldest son.

It’s true that his bakery was very successful. He was making enough money to be able to afford little luxuries. My mother-in-law was overwhelmed by the stream of new gadgets coming into their home; a black box with strange knobs and dials, out of which voices and music issued, and a larger white-enamelled metallic cupboard, which seemed to run on electricity and once plugged in, kept everything fresh and cold. A godsend in the stifling heat of summer, when the heat would bounce off the streets, rendering work in the bakery, with its coal-fired ovens, unbearable.

Not only that, but her husband had decided to build a house in their village, attached  to the tumbledown ruin that had been his share of the family compound. Her father  had supervised the building work during their absence, and in six months she and her husband were the proud owners of the most modern house in the village. They were not to know that this house was to be their port in the catastrophic storm that would engulf them a few years later.

A flat roof terrace could be reached by way of a ladder leading from the second floor veranda. From there they could stand and marvel at the breathtaking sight of the Djurdjura mountains, rising like mighty jagged teeth from the earth, creviced and sculpted by the summer sun and the winter frosts. Withstanding not only the forces of nature, the mountains had also stood tall against other forces since time immemorial.

Every morning, on waking in their new house, they would feel the cool mountain air flooding in through the windows. From their bed they could see, through the same windows, the endless expanse of turquoise sky and mountain peaks painted with shimmering gold streaks by the rising sun.  Its buttery light would then gradually spread into every corner of their room, bathing it in a warm glow.

In spite of all this prosperity, the management of the bakery — standing behind the counter for twelve hours at a stretch, juggling the various problems involving workers, supplies of fuel, flour, salt, oil and other products  -— had become routine and monotonous for my father-in-law. He was stuck in an endless loop. Highly educated for an Algerian of the time, he was blessed with natural intelligence and cursed with a restless nature, craving the constant stimulus of challenge and change — again, very like T. Life as a baker, albeit a very successful and wealthy one, would not have satisfied him for long.

By contrast, my mother-in-law had a fundamental need for stability. She was content to know that her children, at least, were clothed and fed and not living from hand to mouth as most people in Kabylie. She needed roots, like the flowering bushes and trees that grew in profusion around her village. Roots mean security. Trees can be transplanted, often with magnificent results, but there is always a risk that they might wither and die. Success can slip through your fingers like sand through a sieve.

Their family was growing fast. After two boys, they had been blessed with the arrival of a baby girl with a mop of chestnut curls, milk-white skin and huge green eyes, as like her mother as two peas in a pod. Most of these births took place in Kabylie, where my mother-in-law was looked after by her doting parents, for whom nothing regarding their daughter was too much trouble.

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The birth of his sister is one of T’s earliest memories. He must have been about four at the time, and, drawn by the incessant bustle around his grandmother’s room, with much to-ing and fro-ing and mysterious objects being carried in and out under towels, he had peeked around the door.

His eyes, widening in fascination and fear,  had been drawn to the sight of a knife being heated in the open fire until it glowed white-hot. Of course, it was in preparation for cutting  the umbilical cord, but T wasn’t to know that. Listening to his mother’s muffled groans, he  was convinced that something terrible was being done to her.

Back in Maison Carrée, life continued as usual, but unbeknownst to my mother-in-law,  her husband was already laying the foundations for a new life for them. The first thing she knew about it was when she opened the door to her flat one day to find two of her husband’s brothers, weighed down by bundles and suitcases, standing on the landing outside.

Not only that, but her disbelieving gaze met the triumphant black eyes of their wives — a pair of redoubtable sisters from Taourirt, the village across the valley from theirs. The elder one was later to metamorphose into The Witch Downstairs, aided and abetted by her sibling.  My mother-in-law’s cosy family life in Maison Carrée had come to an abrupt end.

All this change and upheaval had been brought about by my father-in-law’s dissatisfaction with his life.  He had always yearned to turn his hand to farming — to feel the dark crumbly earth beneath his boots, to escape the noise of the city streets and breathe the clean air of the countryside. Before buying a farm, however, he had to find someone to replace him at the bakery.

He had solved the problem by bringing his younger brothers down from their village, where they had no future and no hope of a job. In this way he would also be helping his family— killing two birds with one stone, as it were. As a sweetener, he had bought them the other half of the bakery. There were now three co-owners of one business. The scene was set for many family quarrels to come.

My mother-in-law, although she liked company, began to feel increasingly claustrophobic, as though she was trapped in an endless sea of people. There was noise everywhere, from the constant wailing of children to the screeches of her sisters-in-law as everyone fought for their space. No more separate bedrooms – even T had to sleep on the kitchen floor, back to back with one of his aunts and her newborn baby.

On top of that, when the high temperatures of summer returned, combined with the rising heat from the bakery ovens, the flat became swelteringly hot and airless. Sweat would trickle down everyone’s face and the smell of unwashed bodies would hang in the unmoving air.

There was a loss of intimacy, of dignity, of personal space. Any notion of comfort had been brought to an end and tensions rapidly mounted. As Jean-Paul Sartre would express it so well in his play, Huis Clos, and as my mother-in-law would find out to her cost, “L’enfer, c’est les autres.” (Hell is other people.)

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